This past February I panned Safe House. Now the same director’s previous effort hits American shores: Sweden’s Snabba Cash — subtitled in English as Easy Money. As far as the direction and cinematography go, the two are very similar, and yet Snabba Cash works in a way that Safe House never could. Whether it was that film’s script, or a hacked-up editing job, or a really bad match between the director and the story, I can’t really say; this film makes it clear that it wasn’t entirely Daniel Espinosa’s fault.
Johan Westlund (Joel Kinnaman) is a young man of modest means who has come to Stockholm from working-class Norrland to study business. He aspires to the wealthy upper classes, with pictures of models on the wall of his cramped student apartment to remind himself how to look, dress, and act. To the rich friends he makes through a business school classmate, he is “JW”.
On the side, JW drives a gypsy cab for an Arab named Abdulkarim (Mahmut Suvakci); he knows that more is going on in the business and he wants in, but he doesn’t get much of anywhere until one day he’s asked to pick up a Latino ex-con — Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) — and bring him back to Abdulkarim. Unfortunately, there’s interference from a Serbian gangster, Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), sent by his boss, Radovan (Dejan Čukić). The same quick wits that help JW keep up his rich façade come into play as he helps Jorge escape and earns Abdulkarim’s trust.
As it turns out, Jorge’s cousin in Germany is able to transport large quantities of cocaine into Sweden, which would let the Arabs and their Albanian associates infringe upon the Serbians’ control of the local drug markets. Abdulkarim needs help laundering the money, which is where JW comes in. But the son of a northern sawmill worker — sharp as he is — doesn’t really know what he’s getting himself into here.
When I discussed Safe House, I specifically complained about all the hand-held camera work, as I often do. Here, however, the technique actually works as intended, throwing us as off-balance as JW is in his new environments. The grainy look with a tight depth of field accentuates this effect, keeping the world slightly fuzzy and out of reach, making us work to keep on top of it. I’ll admit that it can be draining, and some of the running scenes are completely disoriented, but for once this is a good thing: it works to raise the tension as JW inches closer and closer to panicking.
So why doesn’t this work for Safe House with Ryan Reynolds’ character? Simply put: Reynolds just isn’t the actor Kinnaman is. And he’s not alone — Varela and Mrsic each turn in excellent performances, and each of them explores other regions of aspiration within Swedish culture and society, which is really what the story is all about at its core. It lacks only the epic scope it would need to stand as Sweden’s answer to the Godfather trilogy.
And while the outlook is as bleak as we’ve come to expect from Swedish film, Espinosa keeps up the pace through what could have been a very drawn-out two hours. The result is a taut, tense thriller with a solid cast of characters, the breadth of which I’ve only hinted at here. This foundation may have what it takes to support the two coming sequels, the first of which hits Sweden next week.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.